Grow Your Own Local Arts

How Any Community Can Cultivate a Robust Arts Ecosystem

ARTICLE | Apr 27, 2018

By Lawrence McCullough

Increasingly, local officials across the country have come to appreciate the arts as an important component for building a robust local economy and sustainable community living.

Arts have proven to be a consistently reliable destination enticement for visitors—visitors who supply revenue to local shops, restaurants, lodging sites, parking meters—while helping revitalize low-income neighborhoods and faded commercial districts.

If your local government, however, is not blessed with an array of major cultural resources, including universities, museums, performing arts centers, and symphony orchestras, and it isn't located right next to a major urban center, how can you make the arts work for you?

The answer: You can grow your own local arts. You may not realize it, but the ingredients for doing so successfully are likely to be found in your community's own backyard.

Q. How does a local government start an arts effort?

As with any other cultivation effort, start with seeds. Here, the seeds are called artists. They can lay fallow and invisible for years, even as you pass them on the street or shake hands at town events. Your task is to bring them into the light, feed them basic nutrients, and get them to sprout. Literally, as well as metaphorically.

Step 1. Invite local artists to meet each other, because most of them probably have never met. Invite them to the town hall where they start absorbing the idea that the local government sees them as legitimate business people and useful stakeholders in the community's future. Solicit and record their concrete ideas on how to make your community more arts filled and arts active.

Step 2. Have artists form an ad hoc local arts advisory committee with meetings chaired by someone from the local government manager's office who can guide discussion and add perspective on questions of zoning, ordinances, future development trends, and more. Keep things loose and expressive, and motivated leaders will emerge.

Step 3. After the arts wish lists of everyone on the committee have been shared, watch as new projects bubble up and take shape, gather momentum, and end up as new community events or even new arts organizations. Ideas that gestated in individual minds for years will achieve solid form when a collective and collaborative energy gets churning.

Individual artists who might have felt isolated will now feel empowered to bring their work to a more public sphere and contribute to the community. Plus, those contributions will generate their own spinoffs involving more residents, students, and businesses.

Q. Where can these arts-involved people be found?

Initiate a thorough arts inventory that identifies every single arts-related person, business, or activity in the community, no matter what the size or level of professionalism or commerciality.

Step 1. Designate a staff member—here again, perhaps from the administrator's office or economic development department—to create a basic survey that identifies local artists and asks questions about their work, career needs, and ways they believe arts could be promoted in the community.

Post the survey on the local government's website and social media, display it in flyer form at local government buildings, and mail it to arts teachers in the schools. Artists and other possible respondents can be located by extensive Googling, contacted by letter or e-mail, and asked to fill out the survey.

Step 2. After surveys are returned, results can be compiled and a cogent summary report written that gives a snapshot of the community's current state of the arts. Managers can also try to analyze future options for arts-based redevelopment, needs of local artists and organizations, viability of a cultural district, arts promotion strategies, and arts education programs.

Q. Is a formal report needed?

Such a report can do four things: (1) It provides a better handle on what a local arts community is actually like in terms of resources and active members; (2) it gets artists interested in being part of what a community is trying to get started; (3) it's the kind of official document showing potential funders or development partners that a community is serious about using local arts as an economic rejuvenator; and (4) it's a way to begin letting people know there is something going to happen that is likely to bring economic benefits and recognition.

Q, Are major arts facilities necessary to have a thriving arts environment?

No. A strong program of community-based arts in the 21st century doesn't start with facilities. It starts with programming. Buildings disperse art, but they don't create it. Art comes from people not buildings.

If you have artists doing art, the right spaces will appear and function as conduits for circulating art in your community. The locality's task is to develop horizontal (connected) not vertical (siloed) relationships among artists, arts venues, and arts audiences—relationships that engage a large number of people as creators and come in close contact with consumers.

Having an established arts anchor institution, however, is a definite asset and a valuable partner in your efforts to grow and spread arts locally. You may already have such an anchor actively involved in fostering various forms of arts in the community—a theatre or dance company, visual artists' co-op, poets' group or open mike, choral or symphonic ensemble, a multidisciplinary or heritage-based arts presenter, or a Friends of the Library association that sponsors arts programming during the year.

Major anchor institutions are great because they provide a visible, year-round advertisement for local arts, have professional, experienced staff; and can help guide new partnerships for new arts programming. But you can still start growing and shaping your local arts ecosystem without one.

Q. Is a local arts council needed?

At the start of arts development, no. But ultimately, it's a useful tool to help sustain and grow the arts community. A local arts council is a marketing organization that promotes all arts activity in a community—promotion geared to both local residents and outsiders. It should have a professional, paid staff and be a 501(c)(3) corporation that can serve as a grants applicant to bring funds to local arts groups and initiatives.

Q. Are arts education programs needed?

In the short term, arts education programs are an excellent way to involve schools and thereby get more publicity and audience for local activities. Long term, they lay the foundation for a strong future for arts in a community by cultivating young artists and future arts audiences.

Many teachers—even if they are not employed specifically as arts teachers—are artists and will do what they can to facilitate links between students and arts programming.

Q. How do we get the public to pay attention to the arts?

It helps to have an arts plan that states what the local government and partner groups hope to accomplish and how. After a survey-based summary report has been released, reconvene the ad hoc local arts advisory committee and have its members write out a concise arts plan that implements report recommendations and committee goals.

The objectives put forth should be modest, focusing on finding ways to develop more local arts organizations to present more public arts events and have more people attend them. Even expressed in outline format, an arts plan serves as a benchmark to measure progress in critical action areas and guide efforts going forward.

Q. How much does the general public need to be involved?

Ultimately, a lot. Visualize your successful local arts community as a three-legged stool: institutions, audiences, and artists.

All elements must support each other, or you have nothing. Yet, the truly fundamental interaction here—fundamental as in "foundation"—derives from the strength of the connection between local audiences and artists.

Community building isn't a top-down exercise that can be installed or implanted. It rises from the ground up. Institutions are important in expanding local arts by providing resources, seed money, program guidance, facilities, and outreach; however, artists and audiences have to find each other at the most basic local level for a community arts structure to evolve toward strong institutions. No institution can mandate this bond if it isn't there.

As a manager representing the long-term interests of residents (audiences), you must make certain they are not only along for the ride but also in the passenger seat helping navigate—even taking an occasional turn at the wheel.

Q. Can we recap all this?

Developing a community's local arts scene boils down to these six essential ingredients:

1. Local officials willing to offer support, direction, and resources; most importantly, they serve as the means of introducing this concept to non-arts-related residents and businesses.

2. Local artists willing to extend their arts activity to a more public and more collaborative level.

3. Such flexible venues as churches, schools, storefronts, and restaurants that can accommodate arts events. Contact the owners and operators of these spaces because they are often thrilled to have you do the work of bringing attention to their space.

4. Local business support from landlords, who will cut a break on rent for galleries and performance space; restaurants and bars that offer event-related specials; and merchant associations who cash-sponsor or donate in-kind to programs.

5. Community groups willing to provide volunteers and host events and come up with new ways to use arts activity for their benefit.

6. Massive and continuous media outreach using news releases, flyers, ads, web and social media sites, e-blasts, tweets—simple, frequent outreach informing the public about all this amazing arts activity you have in your community.

Q. Where does No. 6 above come from?

There's no hard-and-fast rule, but it better come from somebody and often, or your arts growth will be maddeningly slow. Possibly the arts committee in its "ad hoc-ness" can appoint a person or subcommittee to commit to handling what is, in essence, a marketing campaign for your efforts.

That is, writing and sending out releases, maintaining a web directory of local artists and arts events, and making sure all community arts activities are known to your community's arts consumers by whatever publicity channels are available.

Q. Is that it?

There is one more final, super-essential core ingredient—so critical it goes beyond mere numbers—which is the unshakable belief that your community's quality of life benefits enormously when more residents interact in public in ways that foster collaboration and expand their understanding of what each can contribute to that shared quality of life.

Which is to say, participating in a vibrant local arts setting can momentarily extract us from our private, cocooned worlds of television and online comment forums to actually converse with each other about what is important in our community. The arts can:

  • Express our individuality and emphasize our similarity.
  • Let us walk in someone else's moccasins and feel their pain and joy, enthusiasm and apprehension.
  • Help disparate elements of a community connect and build something bigger than the sum of individual parts.
  • Be a vehicle for articulating pressing community issues and reaching consensus on those issues.
  • Help local officials mobilize the community to move forward with necessary change.

When your community is starting to plan economic revitalization strategies, make sure the arts have a place at the proverbial table. In truth, artists will be the ones who help you craft that table and set the groundwork for success.

Lawrence McCullough, Ph.D., is arts and media specialist, Skye Consulting, Rahway, New Jersey (lemccullough@mac.com). He has served as public information officer/grants officer/special event coordinator, Woodbridge Township, New Jersey. Article © 2018 Lawrence E. McCullough.

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